Magic is, for lack of a better word, magical. A five letter excuse for people to forget the limitations of the world and let their imaginations run free. No longer confined by the rules of physics, a single being can fly freely through the air and dance flames across their hands. Of course, the human imagination can only stretch so far, inevitably resulting in the misuse of magic, in the creation of an antagonist. But hey, what’s an adventure without a bad guy to clock in the jaw? Which may or may not be a literal statement…because magic.
Unless you have been living under a proverbial, or painfully literal, rock for the past few decades, Studio Ghibli is a pair of words you know. Lauded by many as the pinnacle of animation, their film catalogue has a prominent place in many a fan’s collection and in many a fan’s hearts. But, Studio Ghibli did not make MAry and the Witch’s Flower, so why do I remind you of them? Well, Studio Ponoc is a fresh faced company born from employees of the aforementioned Ghibli. Now, whilst I am not the biggest fan of direct comparison, this is not a pedigree marketing wishes you to forget. Not that eagle (or lesser bird) eyed viewers wouldn’t notice a striking similarity between the art styles of both studios, which is arguably the selling point of this film. Well, not arguably, it is. Decency compels me to add some level of hesitancy to declarations, but it is fairly clear to see that the visual aspect of this film is the heaviest hitter in its line-up.
From the second the film opens, the Ghibli-cum-Ponoc style is on display. Frenetic flames, strange characters and bursting colours dominate the the prologue. Without even providing a moment to absorb the baseline of the world, an onslaught of visuals resounds, yet never overwhelms. Though certainly odd to see a magical hazmat suit spew forth a flock of flying fish, their appearance produces a sense of delightfully confusing wonder…which becomes only slightly terrifying when they begin to peck(?) at the main(?) character. Even with this uncertain fear and striking visual sequence, a sense of mystery purveys. A series of events led to this in-media-res opening, events that seem rather important considering there are currently two colours of fire currently burning a building to the ground and a witch making a beeline in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, the answers to these questions will not be addressed for quite a while in the film and even then they aren’t so much elaborated upon, as they are answered by virtue of how obvious every revelation is.
In leaving the prologue behind, Mary and the Witch’s Flower loses a fair amount of momentum. Though Mary’s life is intentionally presented as a slow, and decidedly dull, country one, the amount of time spent doing so is a touch excessive and becomes exceedingly moreso as the events that follow unfold. As the film speeds through the actual plot, it becomes more and more apparent that time management is not the film’s strong suit. This isn’t even only about the “Mary is Bored” opening plotline either, her initial introduction to the world of magic is also rather rushed and, ultimately, pointless. The irony of this film’s pacing, however, is that you don’t realise it is off until it has already passed by. When first watching Mary’s country life, it presented a quaint and charming atmosphere, albeit a little sparse on character, which truly supported the apparent innocuousness of picking a simple flower. Her first arrival at Endor College (the magic place) was free in the zaniest of ways and provided no end of visual elements to gawk at. But afterwards, these feelings left me. Her days in the country seemed to dominate a too large portion of the film, her tour of the school was hollow and quick and neither maintained the weight they once held. Sure, individually they are lovely vignettes that would make anybody smile and get a nice warm feeling in their heart, but together they lack a sense of cohesive storytelling. Which is another unfortunate flaw in this film.
Though and undeniably pretty film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is an almost unrewardingly simple experience. As I briefly mentioned before, the plot doesn’t so much propel itself forward, as it does stumble into the path of least resistance. Depth is traded for rapidity and moments that possess the potential to be poignant are forgotten as soon as they appear. A physical representation of this practice comes in the character of Flanagan. First to greet Mary in the world of magic an a charmingly energetic chap, Flanagan essentially walks Mary into the story proper. However, he exists for little other reason. Despite making it known he could, and seemingly wishes, to teach Mary about handling the broomstick that carried her, he never does. Despite seeming like a friend who will guide Mary through this strange new world, he is given very little screentime following his introduction. Perhaps the worst element left by the wayside, however, is Flanagan’s past. Upon reading the number one rule of Endor College, “Tresspassers will be transformed”, Flanagan gives a very brief and mournful look. Given that Flanagan is some kind of raccoon man, this implies a rather interesting backstory for this lovably inviting character…which is never again mentioned. There is even a point where some magical transformations are specifically reversed and Flanagan is never brought up. Sure, not every sentence can lead into its own plotline, but this one just seems rather important to forget completely. The antagonists even mention Flanagan by name once, pointlessly connecting him further to the story. And speaking of pointless…
Mary and the Witch’s Flower stumbles over the line of world building and pointless information. Did the adults in Mary’s life need to be busy in order for her to wander into the forest unattended, allowing her to find the titular bloom? Probably. Did the entire town need to be going to the funeral of the the Mayor? No, definitely not. Why such a big event? Why something so needlessly separate from the storyline? The townsfolk, who tally in at a whopping four, are barely given screentime as it is, her aunt could’ve simply told Mary to enjoy her day seeing the town and the plot would have unfolded normally. IS this nitpicking on my end? Most likely, but the film just accrues the little blighters and they become increasingly hard to ignore. Like the fact that Mary’s likeness to the witch in the prologue is never mentioned once, made even more egregious by the apparent rarity and legendary status of witches who sport red hair. Or the fact that, after sneaking into the antagonist’s lair towards the film’s climax, Mary simply walks around in the open, the villains never trying to stop her. Plenty of other inconsistencies plague the film, however they are on a scale of increasing minuteness and I am honestly bumming myself out. I want to like the film, and to a certain extent I do, but there are just all kinds of details that hold it back.
Ia I had to use one word to describe Mary and the Witch’s Flower (which I clearly don’t), it would be charming. Despite my snowballing complaints, this is a fun film that never ceases to impress your eyes. Even the sandwich Mary eats for lunch looks good. However, if you come into this film looking for a simple, yet sharply written story of adventure and growth, you will be disappointed. Mary begins the film as a helpful, compassionate girl whose only flaw is her rashness. However, that very same rashness is what enables her to save the day and is even noted by her aunt as her most endearing feature. Even Peter, the other child in the film, remains constant throughout, beginning and ending the story as a sweet boy who works around town to help his mother make ends meet. Mary’s aunt remains remarkably dull, the gardener Zebedee (which is the coolest name ever) continues to garden and the antagonists are never hinted at having learned their lesson, nor do they receive comeuppance of any serious weight. It’s all just so…hollow. With this in mind, and analogies being a stalwart companion of explanation, I simply leave you with this: Mary and the Witch’s Flower is akin to a stained glass window, lovely to look at, but ultimately stationary and unchanging.
Prepare to be whisked away to a world only a Madman could dream of and only one Little Broomstick reveal